This year the state of California has faced one of its most dangerous wildfire seasons yet, with both its deadliest and largest blazes raging simultaneously. Due to the sheer size of these fires, and the urgency of preventing large-scale damage, the state has used every resource at its disposal, often calling in firefighters from distant counties, even from other states, to fight particularly difficult fires. Among the firefighters working on the front lines to save homes and wildlife are incarcerated workers.
Unlike the professional firefighters, many of whom have won comprehensive benefits packages, desirable wages and opportunities for professional growth via their union contracts, incarcerated workers employed as firefighters are typically paid at a rate of $2 per day, plus one additional dollar per hour while fighting active fires. It almost goes without saying that these workers do not have the other benefits enjoyed by professional firefighters like retirement benefits or healthcare coverage for their families. Even after release from prison, the invaluable frontline experience of employment as firefighters while incarcerated often does nothing for a former inmate’s career prospects. The vast majority of formerly incarcerated people find themselves ineligible to work professionally as firefighters due to restrictions on required certifications with regard to people convicted of felonies.
Although the liberal media has picked up a variety of stories on this matter (including a notable investigation by the New York Times on the incarcerated women firefighters in California), these outlets often note that incarcerated firefighters volunteer for this particular duty for a variety of reasons, and monetary compensation is not chief among them. Typically, the liberal news media focuses on the fact that many of these workers would gladly help prevent the damage to homes, destruction to wildlife, and loss of life–for free.
This “feel good” angle, praising the virtues of altruistic work (especially life-threatening altruistic work), in fact obscures the obscenity of the situation. The simple fact is that while many incarcerated workers exemplify heroism and willingness to help others, they are still very much people and workers entitled to compassion, fair treatment and labor rights. While they put their lives on the line to protect homes (including in places like Malibu, where the median household income is $238,000 per year), these workers are paid less for each day, working in life-risking conditions, than many of the local homeowners spend on a single meal.
Such a situation is a striking reminder of the irrational and cynical conditions of neoliberal capitalism. It demonstrates how as the government retreats from any role of minor social provision it once played, as more and more of its basic services are leased out to the private sector, the state will go as far in its cost-cutting efforts as making prisoners put out huge fires, almost for free. It recently emerged that Verizon, which had been providing internet services to a mobile command unit putting out large blazes in Northern California, “throttled” the unit’s internet access until the unit was forced to pay double the price for a new contract, delaying operations. In these conditions of deregulated, criminalized “disaster capitalism,” even a natural disaster is a key opportunity to save money and turn a profit.
Right now, workers in prisons and jails nationwide are engaged in one of the most significant prison strikes in recent history. The 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike demands “an immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”
While this demand applies to all forms of prison labor, this demand is particularly notable in the case of incarcerated firefighters, several of whom have paid with their lives to protect other people’s homes. The New York Times’ investigation quoted Lt. Keith Rady, who revealed: ‘‘Any fire you go on statewide, whether it be small or large, the inmate hand crews make up anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel.”
Without incarcerated firefighters, the growing danger from wildfires would have even more devastating effects on the state. These workers are essential to the extremely hard, dangerous labor of fighting these fires, and they deserve to be treated like other firefighters. They deserve competitive wages, the ability to use their work experience after their release, benefits for their families and the ability to bargain collectively under a union. Fair treatment for incarcerated firefighters now!